Making climate science accessible – and personal

Alison Smart, B.F.A. ’05, uses the interpretive and storytelling skills she honed as a theatre arts major at the University of Miami to help the public understand and absorb the science behind climate change.
sunny skies

For many of us, climate change is an abstract notion.

We hear scientists warn, for example, that the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, with most of that warming happening in the last 40 years. That unless carbon emissions are reduced, that warming trend will continue. And that people in many places are already feeling the impacts.

Yet we still do not necessarily have a clear picture of what this could mean for us or for future generations, especially locally.

What will an increase of two degrees mean in terms of heat, precipitation, storms, or drought? Three degrees? How can the consequences of each increase in temperature be communicated so that people can better understand what could happen – and what to do about it?

University of Miami alumna Alison Smart and her colleagues at Probable Futures aim to help people see the coming changes in the physical world in ways that resonate and inspire action.

A self-described “climate literacy initiative,” Probable Futures was launched in 2021 in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Its core team, drawn from the worlds of business, culture, technology, and design, started asking climate scientists direct, practical questions about what climate change would look and feel like in different parts of the world, and at different temperature increments.

They then created an interactive, web-based platform that enables users to visualize the range of possibilities.

Alison Smart

The executive director of Probable Futures, Smart is passionate about building support for urgent climate action so that future generations have the chance to flourish. She has no formal scientific training; instead, her background in the arts led her to Probable Futures.

“I studied music and theatre at the University of Miami, and, at the time, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that that one day I would be running an organization focused on climate change,” Smart said. “It really was an organic process.”

That process included experiencing Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma when they made landfall in South Florida. “I saw firsthand how powerful the climate can be, and how quickly our human systems can break down as a result,” Smart said.

In the decade after her graduation in 2005, Smart worked for arts and cultural organizations, including a ballet company and two museums. “I was able to advance those organizations by being a good storyteller and helping people understand why the arts are important to having a strong society,” she said.

In 2015 Smart was recruited to the Woodwell Climate Research Center as vice president for strategy and advancement, in part, she says, because of her background in the arts. “I found that climate scientists really wanted help from people outside their domain and, in particular, people like me who knew how to tell stories and who cared about design and aesthetics.”

There, Smart met Spencer Glendon, formerly director of research at a Boston-based investment management firm, who had begun to explore climate science insights and their applicability to the finance industry. Like Smart, Glendon believes that good storytelling makes for effective science communication, and he invited Smart to join him in creating Probable Futures.

As Smart explained, the project arose from the disconnect she and her colleagues saw between what climate scientists were saying and what the rest of society was hearing.

“For a long time, people weren’t really using climate science, or asking any relevant questions of it, and so we were left with abstract notions of the future,” she said. “There is one picture of the future that has more electric cars and modernist architecture, but where everything else is essentially the same, and another that is perpetual apocalypse. And neither of these notions is accurate.”

Instead, Smart and her colleagues translate the science in ways that help people visualize the realistic in-between scenarios – the probable futures.

“We all experience the physical world and climate every day, so this is something people can grasp,” Smart said. “We are trying to help people understand the range of possible outcomes, from the best-case scenario to the worst and to help people develop a risk mindset around climate change.”

Interactive maps showing the effects on temperature (top) and precipitation of different warming scenarios, from Probable Futures

The Probable Futures platform features interactive maps in which users can toggle between different warming scenarios to see the potential impacts where they live. There are also articles that lay out in clear prose and graphs the Earth’s climate history, how the climate stability of the last 12,000 years enabled human civilization to flourish, and how climate change is now disrupting the patterns around which we’ve built our societies.

As Smart pointed out, “our buildings are made to withstand certain temperature and precipitation thresholds. Our storm sewers are designed to withstand a certain amount of precipitation. And it’s all informed by the past … a stable climate is assumed, and our previous assumptions aren’t valid any more.

“Being aware of how much of our current world is dependent on climate stability ultimately leads to preparation and mitigation. At some point, you recognize that although you cannot prepare for everything, you can prepare for the things we know are highly likely and mitigate against the more extreme outcomes.”

It is a concept that applies broadly to different sectors of society.

“Many more people are going to be working on climate change in the future across a lot of different industries,” Smart said. “So, we designed the site to be useful for anyone who is coming into this space and needs to understand the science for personal or professional reasons.”

She includes the creative community – artists, writers, filmmakers, and more – among those who have a role to play in making the science accessible. “There are the obvious industries that can use this information: finance, policy, urban planning, agriculture,” she said. “The creative community has largely stood on the sidelines in the climate conversation … we really need help picturing how we might live in these probable futures. Creatives can help imagine the future in a way that is informed by what science can tell us.”

Smart draws a straight line between her own theatrical training at the University and her work with Probable Futures. She performed in several productions – including a memorable one of The Rocky Horror Show that featured then-President Donna Shalala in a guest role – but she found her true passion in staging and producing theatrical works.

“There was a stage management course and I learned staging and production in the black box theatre,” she recalled. “I learned that I cared deeply about artistic expression and the importance of telling stories, and I also recognized that I did not need to be the one on stage and that I had talents that could be put to good use behind the scenes.

“In theatre you are a steward for other people’s words, stories, and knowledge. I got very used to doing that. In every step of my career, I have been representing the work of other experts, whether playwrights or choreographers, museum curators or scientists. My training at the University of Miami gave me the confidence to do that.”